The Jews of Venice are appealing on behalf of the Muslim immigrants who are reaching the shores of Italy as they prepare to mark the half-millennial anniversary of the first ghetto.
The event commemorates the opening of the Jewish ghetto of Venice, created on March 29, 1516 to separate the Jews from the primarily Christian population of the time.
A series of cultural events are slated to take place this Tuesday to mark that date. The Jews of Venice say they believe their history can teach Europe that minorities can integrate while preserving their identities.
University Professor Shaul Bassi told The National in an interview on Monday, “Those of us who have worked on this anniversary believe the ghetto has precious ethical and cultural lessons to educate the public about Jews as well as the broader question of cross-cultural dialogue, co-operation and co-existence.
“Today, Italian Jews are proof that a minority can keep its identity and still integrate in a process of reciprocal influence,” he said.
“Elsewhere in Europe Jews were treated worse, and Venice to some extent was a safe harbor,” said Paolo Gnignati, leader of Venice’s Jewish community. “The city wanted them to come because they needed access to Jewish trading networks; it was good business on the part of the doges.
“We were deprived of our rights here, but contributed to Europe’s identity and we are still here,” Gnignati said. “We can serve as an example to newcomers who want to participate in Europe while preserving their original identity.”
The word “ghetto” in Italian is “geto” from “gettare,” the verb “to cast.” The Jews were forced into a cramped, polluted area surrounded by canals for the next 300 years. They were locked in at night and forced to pay the wages of their Christian guards.
During the day they were required to wear yellow caps to identify them as Jews (does any of this sound familiar?) as they entered the rest of the city. They were also ordered to use Christian architects to build the five synagogues in the ghetto itself, which remain today. Because the ghetto was so small, the Jews ended up creating the first skyscrapers, building apartments one on top of the other in order to accommodate the growing population. Some of the buildings, eight or nine stories high, are still the tallest in the city.
Napoleon knocked down the gates of the ghetto when he occupied Venice in 1879, allowing Jews to live where they chose.
By the time of World War II, the city’s Jewish population had dropped from 5,000 to just over 1,000. During the war, 246 of the city’s Jews were sent to die in the concentration camps. Only eight returned.
Today in Venice only 450 Jews remain, with just a handful in the ‘ghetto.’ The five synagogues there are still open, and Venetian Jews say they’re urging incoming Muslims to learn from their history in order to survive.